Diana Henders: Frontier Fluff or Stouthearted Heroine
Bandit of Hell’s Bend)
by Alan Hanson
She could ride and shoot with the best of them. One minute
she laughed off the proposal of a coarse cowboy, the next she retired to
the refinement of her books and piano, and the next she shot it out with
Indians. One of the few women in Arizona of the 1880s, she fell heir to
one of the West’s biggest cattle and mining businesses. Furthermore, in
the face of hopeless odds, she stood her ground against a band of “corn-fed”
Easterners, who tried to swindle her out of everything. Of course, she
is Diana Henders, the self-reliant and independent star of Edgar Rice Burroughs’
“The Bandit of Hell’s
In his introduction to the 1979 Gregg Press edition of
“The Bandit of Hell’s Bend,” Robert E. Morsberger described Diana
as, “neither a clinging vine nor a conventional dainty damsel who swoons
in moments of crisis … but rather refreshingly self-reliant, one of Burroughs’
most attractively independent heroines.” Certainly, Mr. Morsberger’s
introduction is the best treatise ever written on this underrated tale,
but having read the story several times, I feel uneasy about his characterization
of Miss Henders. “Self-reliant and independent” and “independent
and self-reliant”—any way you say it, those words fit Diana Henders
like a loose pair of Levis.
Of course, it all depends on how you define “self-reliant”
and “independent.” If we’re talking attitude alone, then I’m with Mr. Morsberger.
But “self-reliant” — doesn’t that imply a person’s ability to take
care of one’s self, in action as well as attitude? If so, then we’re talking
about two different Diana Henders.
Let’s take a close look at this frontier gal, who is,
as Mr. Morsberger says (and I agree), one of ERB’s most attractive heroines.
First of all, it would seem a character aspiring to be self-reliant and
independent would be a good judge of character and would not be easily
misled by others. Well, our Miss Henders spends the first third of the
story misjudging all three of her suitors. In addition, one of them puts
a ring in poor Diana’s nose and leads her around like a cow being led to
In judging people, Diana had two basic weaknesses. First,
she made initial judgments based on superficial observations, seeing what
she liked and ignoring what she didn’t. Second, she failed to clearly see
the motivations behind the actions of her suitors.
Take Jefferson Wainright, Jr, for example. To talk with
an educated (Harvard, no less) man her own age thrilled Diana with excitement.
Of course, his egotism was “busting” out all over, but Diana overlooked
this in contemplation of his “finer qualities,” as she called them.
When Junior wrapped his proposal in unlimited money and a promise to die
for her at the first opportunity, Diana was non-committal. Yet, the next
day she told her father she was considering marrying Wainright and was
willing to give up the frontier life and go back East. That was only two
months after she met the heir to the Wainright blanket fortune. It took
a swift kick for Diana to see Wainright clearly. Only when he fled during
an Indian attack rather than come to the defense of her and her father,
did she tell Wainright to take a hike. Apparently, his “finer qualities”
didn’t overcome cowardice in Diana’s eyes.
Well, let’s allow that Diana’s inexperience with city
dudes was a factor in her initial inability to see Wainright’s true colors.
However, there can be no such allowance for her misjudgments of Bull and
Hal Colby. She had grown up with their kind — uneducated, unrefined, independent
ranch hands — and yet she made the same kind of superficial, naïve
judgments about them as she did about the city-slicker Wainright.
It’s not as if Bull had no clearly visible good qualities.
He was a good hand, the most respected man in the outfit, in fact. Diana
recognized that and voiced her pride that Bull was one of her father’s
hands. Although she felt absolute confidence in his ability to protect
her when she was with him, she still was not sure she cared to be with
him. Again, Diana’s judgment of Bull was based on superficial observation.
“He’s so quiet and reserved that I feel as though no one could ever
know him, and when a man’s like that,” Diana concluded, “you can’t
help but think that maybe he’s done something that makes him afraid to
talk, for fear he’ll give himself away.” Whereas Diana disregarded
Wainright’s egotism in the light of his “finer qualities,” she did
the opposite in judging Bull. His finer qualities couldn’t overcome his
lack of social grace in her eyes.
Of course, in Diana’s mind, the thing Bull must be hiding
was that he was the Black Coyote. She let circumstantial evidence slowly
grow into conviction. Bull owned a black handkerchief and had blood on
his shirt the day of one of the holdups. Bull wouldn’t deny he was the
outlaw when she probed him about it. Yet, there was that “something
in the man himself, or rather in his influence upon the imagination of
the girl” that throughout made it almost impossible for her to believe
he was the Black Coyote. (Here the reader screams, “That’s love, Honey!!!"
But at this point, Diana can’t conceive of loving a “taciturn stick”
Diana was pleased by the love avowals of Wainright and
Colby, but not so with Bull. When he told her of his love in a quiet, dignified
way, she was sorry he loved her. She then persisted in telling Bull, “You’re
more like a brother.” (Geez, Di, you really know how to hurt a guy!)
Well, the great two-by-four of love eventually smacked Diana right between
the eyes, but it was more out of default than anything else, as Wainright
and Colby were both out of the picture by then.
Speaking of Colby, it was Diana’s inability to see through
him that is most frustrating to the reader. Naturally, there was the expected
superficial judgment from Diana. His wavy black hair, perfect profile,
gleaming teeth, laughing eyes, and self-confidence with women attracted
Diana from the start. “Gleaming teeth” seem little enough for a
woman to put trust in a man (a horse maybe), but Diana’s initial faith
in Hal Colby seems unbendable despite his continued actions in his own
self-interest. Colby trotted out a mean horse, hoping young Wainright would
break his neck trying to ride it. When Bull suggested that was Colby’s
purpose, a shocked Diana responded, “I didn’t think it of him. It’s
The really amazing thing is that Diana could never see
through the line of “bull” about Bull that Colby fed her. It was
him who first suggested to her that Bull’s quietness was an indication
he was hiding something. Later, Colby planted the suggestion in Diana’s
mind that Bull was the Black Coyote. He told her when Bull flashed a bag
of gold in a card game, and he dared her to have Bull guard the gold shipments
for a month to prove his guilt.
In the face of this hardly subtle campaign against Bull,
the naïve Diana made the following statement to Bull. “Hal likes
you, Bull. He told me you were one of his best friends, and he was so sorry
that your losing the job as foreman. He said he hated to take it.”
An incredulous Bull just stared silently at Diana, but he couldn’t hold
his tongue when, even after Colby had led a lynch mob after him, Diana
said, “I don’t see why he hates you so. I used to think that he liked
you.” Bull replied, “Then all I got to say, Miss, is that you must
be plumb blind.” (And the reader punctuates, “It’s about time someone
told her that!”)
Only when it becomes obvious to her that Colby was siding
with the swindlers trying to take her ranch, did she put an end to his
suit and fired him. She told him, “I may have been a little blind, but
I am far from crazy — my eyes are open now, open wide enough for me to
be able to recognize my friends from my enemies.” That statement is
four-fifths the way through the story. It took that long for this supposedly
“self-reliant” and “independent” girl to be able to tell
the good guys from the bad guys.
Well, I suppose there have been people in history who
have been poor judges of character and still made it through. The real
test of self-reliance comes when one is cast alone upon the waters to either
sink or swim. This happened to Diana when both her father and his partner
died, leaving her to manage their cattle and mining business. How did our
self-reliant and independent heroine face this great challenge? Well, for
starters, she sobbed. She had been confident she could carry on with the
guidance of her father’s partner John Manill in New York, but with his
death, she questioned her ability to manage the complex business.
Our independent girl, however, knew just what she
needed to be able to carry on — she needed a man! In fact, she needed a
man so desperately, that she nearly married that rat, Hal Colby. “Here
there was at least someone who cared — someone upon whose broad shoulders
she might shift a portion of her burden.” Even before Corson and Miss
Manill arrived to discuss the business, Diana was tempted to say yes to
Colby “to have a strong man to carry the burden and responsibilities
Now came a trying ordeal for Miss Henders. The swindlers,
Corson and Lillian Manill, were on the scene and were in cahoots with those
shyster Wainrights. Of course, our heroine stood tall and took ’em all
on in a fight to the finish. “If you think, Mr. Corson, that you are
going to take my property away from me without a fight, you are mistaken.”
Surely, here Diana Henders is being self-reliant and independent. In attitude,
perhaps, but not in action. After a trip to see a Kansas City lawyer proved
fruitless, Diana was about to give up. “If I had anything to fight with,
I’d fight, but I’m all alone.”
Finally, Diana came into her own. To hell with the law!
It’s no sin to fight the devil with fire! Arriving at the ranch, she ordered
the whole crew — the Wainrights, Corson and Lillian — off the premises.
Of course, they didn’t take her seriously, so Diana had to get some men
— in this case, Texas Pete, Shorty and Idaho — to do the dirty work and
run the “dudes with the funny pants” off the ranch.
In fact, Diana had to depend on a man to see her through
a series of crises to the end of the story. It was Bull who obtained the
documents that proved Diana was the sole heir to the Henders-Manill estate.
It was Bull who captured Colby as he was about to rob Diana of a particularly
large gold shipment. It was Bull, gun in hand, who chased down Colby and
killed him after Hal had abducted Diana. When they got back to town, it
was Bull who did the talking the threatening that finally sent the Wainrights,
Corson and Lillian out of the country forever. The “self-reliant”
and “independent” Diana Henders said nary a word in this final confrontation.
Also of interest is Diana’s behavior as a captive of Colby
after her abduction. She tried to fight back physically, but was overpowered.
All the while she was thinking of rescue. Notice that is “rescue,”
not “escape.” Diana knew she couldn’t get out of that predicament
herself; that called for a man. Finally, our self-reliant girl fought back
with name-calling. “Cur!” she called Colby, but later reconsidered.
“You unspeakable — THING! It would be an insult to a cur to call you
that.” (That’s it, Diana. Hurt his feelings.)
When it was all over, Bull and Diana returned to run the
Bar Y together. Bull would undoubtedly direct the day-to-day activities
of the ranch, while Diana kept the books and took her morning rides with
one of the boys. I’m sure Bull would think it only chivalrous to let Diana
have the final word about her role in “The Bandit of Hell’s Bend.”
Near the end of the story, she looked up into Bull’s face and declared,
“I have been such a fool.” Who am I to argue with the lady?
• • •
I’m afraid that some may think I have been too hard on
Diana Henders. Actually, I kind of like her character. I was just trying
to show that she is very much a typical Burroughs heroine, defiant in attitude,
but dependent on men. And this should not be seen as criticism of ERB’s
treatment of women. Times have changed; his attitude toward women was reflective
of the times in which he lived and wrote, and I suspect men of his era
found women like Diana Henders very appealing. — AH